After a weekend of bad results for us (good ones for the teams around us in the Premier League), we sit 7th in the table. It makes tonight’s game against Everton even more important than it already was, and having lost our last two away games, we cannot make it hat-trick this evening.
In terms of team news, there’s a doubt over Emile Smith Rowe who has a slight groin problem, and although he scored at Old Trafford, it looked obvious he was a little way from his best. He looked tired to me, and I just wonder if tonight we might have to do the sensible thing, rest him, take some of the burden off him and make sure he’s ready for the weekend and beyond. It’s a tough one because he’s scored five goals in his last eight games, and nobody else is doing that with any kind of similar frequency, but this is the period of the season when the manager needs to take care of his players because of how hectic the schedule is.
With Bukayo Saka not 100% either it’ll be interesting to see what decisions are made this evening. Gabriel Martinelli was one of the few bright spots from the Man Utd defeat, and after his goal against Newcastle, he deserves to keep his place tonight and I think it’ll be in one of the wide positions. If the two young England internationals don’t make it, perhaps Nicolas Pepe could come in from the cold. Up front, I think it’ll be Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (who I wrote about yesterday), but if it was Alexandre Lacazette, he couldn’t complain. I’d stick with the captain for this one, and he needs a goal badly, but there’s a balancing act when it comes to keeping faith with a player and acknowledging his form means someone else deserves a go. It’s not quite last chance saloon stuff for Auba, but another game without scoring would only add to the worries.
I’d like to see Albert Sambi Lokonga back in midfield this evening alongside Thomas Partey. The Ghanaian hasn’t delivered what we expected of him so far this season, but I’d play him. If it’s not working, he can come off, but if it does, we have a better chance of winning this game. There’s some chatter that Granit Xhaka might be involved this evening, but surely a place on the bench is the best he can hope for after such a long period out and returning so far ahead of schedule. He hasn’t even had a run-out in an U23 game.
Defensively, the only change I would make is Kieran Tierney for Nuno Tavares. It’s no slight on the summer signing, but in a couple of away games he’s been partially at fault for goals we’ve conceded. Tierney has been patient, Arteta has shown faith in Nuno and for good reason, but again we have to think about this month and all the football we have to play. Playing Tierney this evening isn’t closing the door on Tavares, we’re going to need him and after his decent run in the side, we can feel confident about that when he is required.
We know there are things we need to improve on. What happens if we take the lead, for example? Can we avoid the bad habit of sitting off and letting the opposition back into it? I don’t believe it’s an instruction from Arteta, but when it keeps happening, it becomes a trait you associate with a manager. He has to find a solution for it. It’s not that we have to go all-out-attack, but we can’t go super-mega-defensive as a matter of course in that scenario. It’s costly, as Thursday night demonstrated all too clearly.
Another key aspect of this evening, beyond managing his team, is managing the occasion as well as he can. Let’s make no bones about this, Everton are a mess right now. They haven’t won a game since September 25th, the fans hate the manager, there’s a walk-out planned in the 27th minute in protest at the board, and if Arsenal can start brightly, score early, and get on top, it could turn ugly. That’s taking nothing for granted, by the way. We might see an Everton team that’s fired-up having lost the Merseyside derby, and perhaps the players aren’t of the same opinion about Rafa Benitez as the fans, but there’s an opportunity for us to take advantage of their situation.
I can’t say if this is backed up by stats, but it feels like we’re often a kiss of life team. With our opponents gasping for breath we give them the kickstart they need to get going again. We cannot let that happen this evening. West Ham, Man Utd, and Sp*rs, all won at the weekend, and a win for us this evening would put us above the last two and just a point behind the hammers. This is a two-tier table when you look at the top end. Chelsea, City, Liverpool – they’re in a scrap for the title. We’re fighting with the others for the European places, and the three points on offer this evening are vital in that regard.
We’ve shown some decent ability to ‘bounce back’ this season, and we need to see it again tonight. Fingers crossed.
There’s a preview podcast on Patreon right now too. Catch you later for the game.